I’ve always thought of this blog as a record of the fiction that I’ve read. Therefore, up until now, I have only written about the novels, novellas, and short story collections that I have read. For the most part, the distinction between fiction and non-fiction is a fairly clear one. However, when it comes to autobiographical writing things get a little less clear cut. For example, is Out of Africa a novel or an autobiography? And what about Cider with Rosie or Hideous Kinky or My Family and Other Animals? Each is clearly autobiographical, yet none is exactly a straight autobiography.

However, I have just read what is more obviously a straightforward autobiography – Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That – and have decided that from now on I will include any autobiography I read if it is of a writer, as this seems in keeping with the subject of this blog.

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

Prior to reading this, I had read what is probably Robert Graves’ most famous novel, I, Claudius (which is fantastic, by the way) and I also knew that he was a poet and that he had translated classical Greek works into English, but that was about the extent of my knowledge about the man.

However, I was aware that Goodbye to All That was considered by many to be a classic autobiography and that it covered (amongst other things) the author’s time spent serving as an officer in the trenches of the First World War.

So, when I found a copy in a charity shop a while back I picked it up, and last month I decided to read it.

This is a story of what I was, not what I am.

The first thing to say is that it certainly is a powerful piece of writing. The first few chapters cover Graves’ early years with his family and then his (largely unhappy) time spent at a series of preparatory schools, culminating in Charterhouse boarding school. Here he was bullied, partly due to his German sounding name (which, in full, is Robert von Ranke Graves) and took up two contrasting passions: poetry and boxing. After Charterhouse, Graves’ won a place at St John’s College, Oxford, where he read classics.

However, as interesting as the school accounts are, the real heart of the autobiography covers his years serving as an officer in the First World War. Graves enlisted almost as soon as the war began, aged just 19, and served as an officer for nearly the entirety of the war. It seems that many of the other officers who served with Graves were also in their early twenties, which surprised me.

These were clearly very different times, and there was evidently a vast divide between the privately educated officers and the troops that they led. While both parties clearly had respect for each another, and were very committed to each other (indeed, to the point of death), yet still the men would not in any way open up emotionally to the officers, nor vice versa. The thought of being in a mud-filled trench, being shelled by the Germans and seeing your friends die before you eyes , and still maintaining a stiff British upper lip seems amazing to me.

Another surprising element that comes through is how the men apparently felt very little in the way of hatred towards the Germans. In fact, it seems that the men generally had quite a lot of professional respect for their German counterparts, and it was more often the apparently unappreciative French villagers who tended to anger the troops.

About this business of being a gentleman: I paid so heavily for the fourteen years of my gentleman’s education that I feel entitled, now and then, to get some sort of return.

There are many fascinating tales told here about life in the trenches. For example, it appears that British soldiers were not issued metal helmets until more than a year of fighting had elapsed. Graves evidently had a pretty eventful time of it, and during the course of his active service, he met and befriended both Siegfried Sasson and Wilfred Owen, and even managed to have various of his own poems and collections published during the war. He also got wounded on four separate occasions, and amazingly chose to return to active service on the front line, despite being offered safer roles at home.

There is all this, and much more besides, but I had better stop here and simply encourage you to read the account for yourself. It really is a memorable read.

…but [I] had sworn on the very day of my demobilization never to be under anyone’s orders for the rest of my life. Somehow I must live by writing.